As business has grown and evolved, Richard Bolte Jr. says those two words have almost become synonyms. Managers are consideredleaders, and if a leader isn’t yet a manager, he or she could be one day.
But Bolte says the two terms are not interchangeable. Managers lead based on what is already written in the rule book. Leaders effectchange by revising and rewriting the book itself.
At BDP International Inc., the global logistics firm started by Bolte’s father more than 40 years ago, Bolte made it a priority to transition himself from a manager to a leader upon becoming BDP’s president in 1996. “That’s the most transformational activity that occurred in my entire career,” says Bolte, who also assumed the role of CEO in 2006.
“It’s mainly due to the fact that some of the aspects of becoming a successful leader really cause you to give up and forget about someof the things that made you a success as a manager.”
Bolte says the head of a company needs to be a leader. He or she needs to oversee the company rule book by creating a visionwith clearly defined objectives and spread them to the far corners of the company with strong communication skills.
Without strong leadership, a company risks going stagnant and missing out on opportunities that might help the business grow,and ultimately, survive.
BDP has locations in more than 100 countries, and keeping them on the same page requires relentless communication from thosein the company’s Philadelphia headquarters.
A global family
Many CEOs want their employees to have meaningful, personal working relationships with each other and with management. Themetaphor of “one big family” has been used by CEOs so many times, it has become a cliché of business culture.
Bolte has a unique perspective on the concept because BDP — a company with about $1 billion in annual revenue — actuallyis a family business, passed down from his father to him and his brothers. Bolte says he knows having a business that behaveslike a family is about more than just company picnics and handing out greeting cards during the holidays.
It’s about communication. It’s about forming a communication structure that keeps employees in the know and maintaining itconstantly.
Bolte says it all starts with the leader’s actions. If you are upfront and honest with your employees, others in the company willfollow your example.
“When I became president, that was one of the primary planks by which we decided to run BDP,” he says. “Specifically, we travel around a lot. I think the best way of communicating is when we go to our offices and talk about exactly what we’re up to.”Bolte says there is no substitute for face-to-face communication, so you need to make the time to hit the road and go to a fieldoffice to personally address your employees.
“I’ll say I’m going into a city for a couple of days and I’d like to address the employees maybe for an hour,” he says. “Maybe I’llhave a customer dinner with a supplier, and so on. But I think it’s the highly personal contact that really gives you an understanding of what is going on in the various markets, and it gives employees an opportunity to see your strategy firsthand.”
Bolte says there is more to it than just popping your head into one of your field offices now and again. Take the time to preparea presentation and open up the floor to questions afterward. He says it could be the difference between employees dismissingyour strategy and messages as a series of platitudes, and employees really buying in to what you have to say.
Employees will respond to not just what you say, but how you say it.
“I like to believe I have a passion for what I do,” Bolte says. “When you put yourself in those types of (presentation) situations,you really have the opportunity to demonstrate the passion and commitment you have to running the business. I think those arethe things that leave employees with a much better perception of the leadership of the company than if they sat there and justsaw a video or something.”
The importance of face-to-face communication is something Bolte learned early in his management career.
“As I came up through the ranks, I ran several operations that were outside of company headquarters,” he says. “I always feltlike the people in corporate were up to something. I didn’t know what, but I felt that if I had the opportunity to have a significantrole in the corporate leadership that I was going to do everything possible to communicate our strategy out in the field.”
The culture gap
“There are two things you can never do enough of,” Bolte says. “Train and communicate well.”
That’s especially true when it comes to overseas operations.
Training and communicating become exponentially more difficult when the learning curve includes a trek halfway around theworld to China or Singapore. Not only must you educate new recruits in the ways and means of your company, you are also getting an education in a different culture.
If you want your presence overseas to be a success, Bolte says it is imperative that you learn as much — if not more — abouttheir world as they learn about yours.
“Every culture in which you’ll do business is unique,” he says. “Running a business in China is distinctly different than runninga business in India, especially with regard to the type of human resource challenges.”
Finding Asian employees with a solid English background and technical background is the primary challenge in Asian markets.
In North America and Europe, where language isn’t as much of a barrier and the standard of living is higher, in many cases, theemphasis falls elsewhere.
“Our HR group in a hot-growing market like Shanghai would focus on attracting talented people with good English skills,”Bolte says. “In Europe, where there is a more managed growth rate, it’s more about how you form the right quality of life. Thoseemployees would be more interested in benefits and things like that, so our HR groups in Europe need to concentrate on creating the right sort of atmosphere for our employees.”
Bolte says he makes it a point to get as much background as possible on an overseas market by meeting with the field leadership prior to addressing employees, then weaving what he learns from the managers into his presentation. “I’ll meet with the management in Singapore to find out what is going on there,” he says. “Then I’ll use that to give the presentation a more local feel to show how what we’re doing could impact you and the operation in your country.”
Cultural differences can also come into play when the time comes for employees to ask questions. Not every employee is goingto be willing to stand up in front of his or her peers and solicit m ore information from the head of the company. When that happens, Bolte says you will have to find other ways of answering the questions, including using your field managers as a kind ofintermediary.
“The types of questions really depend on the type of culture,” he says. “I’ve found that in Asia, no matter how open the culture,employees ask very few questions of me, but they might go to their supervisor afterward. In Europe, however, they are very questioning. They’ll ask me about anything.”
Bolte says there are two schools of thought when it comes to staffing an office abroad. Some companies like to bring theircountrymen with them to a foreign land. Some, like BDP, prefer to hire locals.
Bolte says staffing your international offices with local talent and attempting to bridge the culture gap might seemlike more work than simply bringing American workers with you, but U.S. companies that simply staff their worldwide officeswith Americans are missing out on a valuable resource: the insider knowledge that a local worker can bring.
“We’ve watched some European companies not do so well with that strategy,” he says. “Their strategy has been to sendEuropeans to different parts of the world, and we’ve seen them struggle with that. So we had that as a background.”
Bolte says your company might be American, but don’t assume that every employee in every office you might have around theworld needs to operate like they’re based in Anytown, USA.
“Some companies are very American, some are very German, some are very Chinese, but I think if your culture gets toodominating, it can crush and crowd out the voices of folks from a different culture,” he says. “You don’t want to be so dominant that you drown out the voices that you really need in order to develop strategies in different markets.”
The right people
Communication in business is a two-way street. You can do everything in your power to try to get your employees on thesame page with your company vision, but some just aren’t going to buy in.
In that case, Bolte says it’s a bad match of employee and company. It’s unfortunate, but at times unavoidable.
“We’ve had some very talented people come through here, but they either didn’t believe in our culture or didn’t understand it,and as a result of it, they didn’t succeed,” he says.
There is no magic formula for finding the right people that will buy in to and carry out your company’s vision. Bolte says thetried-and-true method of a sit-down interview is usually the best gauge, but even that isn’t an exact science.
Your chances of hitting the nail on the head during the interview process go up along with the number of interview rounds,so Bolte enlists the help of many of BDP’s most experienced managers to conduct many rounds of interviews with applicantsfor higher-level positions.
“After the rounds of interviews, we’ll all put our heads together,” he says. “But to a certain extent, it’s about risk-taking, it’sabout making an assessment. Sometimes, you do have to trust your gut that you are making the right choice. If you do makea mistake, more often than not, it quickly becomes apparent.”
If you make a mistake in evaluating a candidate, he says to acknowledge it quickly and form a plan of action for dealing withit. The longer you let a mistake linger, the worse it’s going to be to fix.
“It’s OK to learn from mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes you make a bad decision, and you hang onto it and hang onto it, you tryto make it work. But you have to acknowledge mistakes quickly and then do something about it.”
HOW TO REACH: BDP International Inc., www.bdpinternational.com